In which the daylight slips away

December 27, 2023

Off to the cold! Landing in Helsinki at around 7 AM, it’s still pitch black outside. The situation does not change much as I catch the train into the city, and even by 9AM, it’s still dark as night outside. Further, no one seems to be up and about. It’s freezing cold (-15 degrees), and despite changing into thermals in the train station, I feel wholly unprepared. This is exacerbated as my only shoes are thinly insulated sneakers with linen socks. Oops.

Exiting the train at Helsinki main station

The ferry is comfortable but crowded. It’s also packed with video poker machines and I’m suitably unimpressed. Out the window, it certainly seems we’re far north. There’s a desaturated blue hue to both the sea and the sky, giving the world a dreamy feel.

I take the opportunity of the ferry-downtime to find and book a hostel: “Fat Margaret’s”, which seems to be just outside the main tourist attraction of the Old Town of Tallinn.

When the ferry arrives, I’m immediately caught in the bluster and snow. It’s only a fifteen-minute walk to the hostel, but trudging through the snow with a small wheely carry-on makes it feel like thirty minutes. I finally arrive and the hostel is dead quiet. The only sign of life is a receptionist smoking outside the door.

After settling in my spacious private room (which cost a grand total of AUD $30 nightly), it was off to make the most of the few hours of daylight. First up: a walk to get oriented with in the Old Town.

Unfortunately, the cold had a predictable—but unexpected—side effect. My camera battery drained rapidly, to the point where I was able to take very few shots before it died! iPhone to the rescue?

In the centre of Tallinn’s Old Town there was a lovely Christmas Market. I would some come to learn that every major European city has one, and that they compete for awards. The vibe is very small town-y and vendors offer touristy trinkets, hot wine (Glogi), meaty foods of various sorts, and of course–a central Christmas tree.

The next day I woke up earlier, to go visit the main synagogue of Tallinn (which my dentist in Australia had thought was stunning). Unfortunately they had just instituted a policy of needing advance booking for security reasons and I had forgotten to even bring ID! After some back and forth in a mix of Russian, English, and Hebrew, I was allowed to visit the Synagogue (though not the accompanying museum). Both were in a fairly substantial gated compound that included a school, the shul, the museum, and offices for the community. Once in, everyone was exceedingly friends–barring the disgruntled guards. After speaking in Hebrew near the entrance to the synagogue (within the compound), a friendly man said he’d take me for five minutes to see the sanctuary. This quickly turned into a half-hour guided tour on the Jewish history of Tallinn.

For the remainder of daylight, I returned back to the Old Town to catch a free walking tour. The tour guide was ebullient but was not ready to engage in a critical discussion of some more challenging aspects of Estonian government and politics. Of particular interest to me is the e-voting system, which has long come under fire from security experts for a variety of flaws. One big take-away for me was how the people of Estonia suffered for substantial periods in serfdom to neighboring empires. Estonia’s history as an independent country was short, and proceeded by a long and brutal history of subjugation. Fortunately as a tourist however, despite the sordid history, many of the historical buildings survived with only limited bombing during WWII.

I had little energy in the evenings in Estonia, and also had work to do, so unfortunately nothing to report on the nightlife, other than a visit to a cute artists colony in the newer part of the city.

However, Riga would be a different story.

In Which My Weekend is Longer Than Expected

December 24, 2023

After an overly hasty read of my ticket out, I discovered I had two full days left in Singapore before a flight to the Baltics. This gave me a chance to explore a little further with Liam, though now I was out of my flashy hotel and into m usual dorm rooms in backpacker hostels. The one in Singapore was cramped, with not great bathroom and shower access, but at least it was a) affordable and b) air-conditioned. Plus, the goal was not to spend much time there anyhow.

The “Safe” Entrance to my Dorm Room Bed.

Top on my list to visit with Liam were Little India and China Town, and Liam suggested visiting the Mustafa Centre, a grand, multi-block, “everything” department store. From high-end watches, to groceries, to shower heads, to tech–all in one place.

Next up we stopped by Mosque street–a heavily touristed area with tourist trap restaurants (in one of which we were caught).

I also explored a little of Chinatown on my own, and caught up with Judy Hong, a former resident of mine from when I lived in Penn’s freshman dorms. Given my tour of law schools, I found one unusual offering on my street: “Foot Health Law”. Perhaps a reader can clarify for me what was meant.

The remainder of my time in Singapore I spent meandering, doing a little photography, and enjoying the vibe. I also encountered the first of many Christmas markets, that would be a significant feature of this trip.

I offloaded all my summer clothes to Liam and then intentionally arrived at the airport early. Singapore Changi Airport has been developed into a shopping, food, and entertainment mecca–known as “Jewel”

As I always travel with just a carry-on, I hadn’t room for the heavy winter clothes that would be necessary for the next part of my trip (the fact I didn’t own any such clothes notwithstanding). I therefore made a pitstop at Uniqlo to buy “Ultra Warm” undershirts, wool socks, and winter pants. And, thank heavens I did.

In Which I Sing(apore) for my Supper

December 22, 2023

The last day in Vietnam was an early rise. We had to be at Hanoi Law University for an 8 AM talk!

On the way over, our “Grab” driver (the local uber equivalent), committed a traffic violation, and it took some words about the official nature of our delegation for the police officer to let us pass.

Hanoi Law University

Accompanying us to the university was a kind and very effective translator. Unlike our previous sessions at the hotel, this time the translation would be asynchronous, limiting how much we could say in one block. We would speak for a few moments, pause, and then the translator would repeat the sense of our words in Vietnamese to the audience. The talk Jeannie and I presented there was on the state of global AI regulation–which overnight had changed again.

We also had an opportunity to meet with dignitaries and local law professors. The architecture and design of the rooms quite noticeably reflected Vietnam’s political allegiances and philosophy—no further comment, but you can see for yourselves in the photo below.

Off Again

Immediately after our talk, Jeannie and I hightailed it to the airport to catch our flight to Singapore….and as happens when one rushes, we arrived to find our flight had been delayed.

After a disappointing hunt for ice cream (the disappointing part was the price-to-volume ratio), we finally boarded our flight and arrived in Singapore.

That evening I met up with Gail and Alon, two old friends from Melbourne who had relocated to Singapore. We had a lovely dinner, followed by dessert at Hvala–a pricey Japanese dessert bar with exceptional tea, which I would return to with my students Elisa and Liam.

Singapore Management University

The following day was the joint SMU/Unimelb Workshop on Future Directions in Commercial Law and Data at which Elisa, Liam, and myself, were all presenting works in progress.

Elisa spoke on the gap that is created when we switch from using law to regulate people’s behaviour, to using code. Liam spoke on regulation of decentralized social media platforms, and I spoke on flaws in implementing blockchain-based organizations. I was particularly proud of my students for their first presentations to senior scholars.

Notably, I was the only computer scientist at the workshop, which was primarily for law professors. However, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was a great chance to expand my academic network further in my secondary field. Long term I hope to be able to pursue a productive career that is recognized both by CS and by law!

A highlight for me was Niva Elkin-Koren’s presentation on using generative AI models to assess the contributions of a new work for the purposes of copyright. While I’m not sure we’ll yet see courts using such evidence, it was certainly a nifty and clever use of models that is outside their original scope.

A Dinner Delayed

Dinner that evening was a multi-course extravaganza. Singapore is notable in that many of the fancy restaurants are located within large shopping malls–likely due to the weather. So the academics gathered in two private rooms in the back of a restaurant in a food court!

Unfortunately, I was left out in the cold: I had a zoom class to teach, and so I sat outside in the food court for my regular office hours (before joining dinner 40 minutes late).

The Sights of Singapore

The next day I worked a little in the morning before taking Elisa and Liam out for a walk, first to the marina.

On the way we also spotted an incredibly cute family of Otters that kept our attention for a good ten minutes!

Our main destination was the Singapore Botanical Gardens, where we shelled out for the view from the supertree, a central pylon from which one can see much of Singapore, the bay, and out to Malaysia. After paying the hefty fee, we took the opportunity for a few photos in the glare.

We next walked over to Marina Bay Sands, a casino, hotel, and shopping plaza, for some lunch, before returning to the hotel to get ready for Jeannie’s book launch that afternoon.

© 2012-2024 Shaanan Cohney